Not long and we wished Cecilia and Ioannis could just adopt us. They were in their thirties, had a house and a steady job, but their exterior circumstances belied how adventurous they actually were.
“The company we work for was sold to Americans and now has gone all nuclear energy,” they explained. When they said they would quit and sell their house to go travelling, I did not doubt them for one minute. They had that spark in their eyes, the openness and boldness of the sort of people who would burn everything to the ground and move forward at the drop of a dime. And now we were here together, supporting each other in our freedom and sharing a slice of our life with each other. Cecilia had even taken us to her Capoeira class in the afternoon. Later, we cooked dinner for the two of them, and they gave us French wine, walnuts and cheese, as well as some tips on where to start hitchhiking.
March 28, Day 10
We thought we would go to Dijon first, so we got a piece of cardboard and wrote on it in large letters. The first place we tried to get on the highway did not work out. We stood there for an hour, singing ‘Do you want to take us to Dijon, sir? It’s so very very far.’ to the melody of ‘Do you want to build a snowman?’.
“We don’t even have a place to sleep there, but we really wanna go. Will you take us to Dijon, sir? That’d be swell.”
We walked some more and tried at a different place. So far, no couchsurfer had replied to us and I was getting worried, and at the same time I was fighting to stay optimistic with all I had. The golden rule of hitchhiking was that you always got away somehow. But that wasn’t enough. I wanted Sara to have a good first hitchhiking experience. Wanted her to understand why Leon did this as a hobby, why it was a sort of philosophy. She had asked the same question as before.
“Why would anyone let us into their home? Why would anyone pick up a hitchhiker?”
The answer was the same: Because they were kind. Because they were trusting. Because they were the universe, just as we were the universe.
Out of nowhere, a car had circled onto the parking lot where we stood. We didn’t realise at first that they had stopped for us. Two girls jumped out, one of them short haired like us, both of them sporting tattoos on their arms.
“Where do you want to go?” one of them spoke English. They were only going to Besancon, which lay halfway to Dijon, but they were willing to take us with them after they had dropped off the stuff in their trunk and made space for our backpacks.
“We’ll be back in 10 minutes,” the smaller one who spoke English said.
“Approxi-ma-tiv-ely,” the driver added. Indeed, 15 minutes later our packs were stuffed in the trunk and we were squeezed comfortably on the backseats.
“Are you together?” Gabrielle, the co-driver, asked us. “Like a couple?”
No, we explained. I had wanted to in the past, but Sara was straight, and now I sort of had two boyfriends. They burst out laughing.
“We are a couple,” Gabrielle said. They too had gone backpacking through France together. Maybe when they’d seen us, they’d seen themselves. They asked us whether we had Gay Pride in Germany, what countries we had travelled to, what we were planning to do in France. I told Gabrielle I liked French rap, more specifically Keny Arkana. She was already holding the CD in her hands.
“This song is about travelling,” she explained, “about just packing a bag and leaving. And freedom.”
Sara and I leant back in our seats, enjoying the breeze coming in through the open window and watched the budding forest pass by the side of the highway, dust on the windows catching the sun. This was the good life. We were moving at 100km/h.
Lea and Gabrielle dropped us off at the rest stop in Besancon, from where we tried to get to Dijon or Lyon, but had no luck whatsoever. The solar panel didn’t feel like charging my phone today, my battery was dying a slow but certain death, and we still didn’t know where we would even sleep that night.
“We have a host in Besancon if we stay here,” Sara said, holding up my phone.
“Then I guess, we’re staying here?”
What a life we were leading. This was where the highway had brought us, like a wheel of fortune spinning, spinning, spinning. No one could have foreseen where it would stop. No one could have foreseen where we would end up that night. Still, it was a two hour walk from the rest stop to Besancon, and Sara had a terrible blister. We made it through the outer ghettoes, realising that the city was in fact quite big, considering that no one had ever heard of it, before we ended up on a terrible, straight road from hell that just would not end.
“I don’t know why walking is so bad today,” Sara said, her jaw tight with exertion. I wished we could have stopped, but it was eight o’clock and we had nowhere to go but Max’s place.
“Distract me,” Sara said. “Tell me a story.”
“Okay. So once upon a time there was a tiny prince,” I began, shamelessly plagiarising my Dad’s bedtime stories. We did eventually get to Max’s place. He was a short, social and happy-go-lucky type of guy who lived with a bunch of other dudes in an apartment complex. His flatmate Medici spoke neither German nor English, and we were a little lost in trying to communicate until we realised we both spoke Japanese. I hadn’t practiced in a long time, and neither had he, but here we were, a German and a French dude talking to each other quite sufficiently in Japanese.
“Isn’t it funny how we’re here now?” Sara said later when we lay in bed. None of the couchsurfers from Dijon had replied to us. We really had not been supposed to go there. Now we were drifting, believing there had to be a reason for all that was happening, and all that was not happening so that something else could.
An email from Cups was waiting in my inbox. I’d worried about it in the back of my mind all day, and reading it, felt my stomach drop. He wasn’t happy about what I’d written. He felt misunderstood. I lay down on the sofa and stared at the ceiling.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Sara asked.
“I don’t know.” Did I want to? “I just wish we could understand each other. But we’re so different in some ways. And it’s funny cause with everyone before I would just have broken up and been sad for a week, but I’m not willing to do that.”
“Why?” Sara asked.
I kept staring at the ceiling. It had one of those white grate patterns. “Why? Cause we’re also very much the same. In some ways. So some things match really hard and it’s super beautiful and others don’t match at all and that’s painful and I guess it’s this mix that makes it so extremely difficult to both be together and to not be together.”
Sara made a sympathetic sound.
“And I think – I think if he wrote about me like this it would actually be very helpful. Because that’s what I do, I write and I become more reflected about what I’m feeling and what I want and then that’s something I can work with. And that maybe he can work with ’cause then we both know what I want. I’m not so sure what he wants.”
Sara nodded. “Yeah and that’s writing. It’s not always super pretty but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.”
“Yeah. I think if someone wrote about me, if someone cared enough to write about me I would take that as an enormous compliment.”
I toyed with the phone in my hands, knowing I was in no state to reply now. Feeling sorry. And feeling baffeled that two people who loved each other so much could understand each other so little.
“I think you should sleep over it,” Sara said. “Whenever I feel terrible I’ve noticed it’s all a little less terrible after sleeping.”
We curled up in our sleeping bags.
March 29, Day 11
It turned out that the breeze coming in through the open windows of the car had made Sara sick. Or, as she put it, definitely not sick. We had gone to the little bar that was called BAR in Besancon because in case Sara was sick, which she was definitely not, a beer might help her get better. She couldn’t afford to get sick now, she said. Not while we were travelling.
“It’s 4 months. We were bound to get sick at some point,” I said, sipping my Grimbergen.
“And what was your plan in that case?” Sara asked indignantly.
I shrugged. “Lie in the tent ’til it passes.” But we weren’t in the tent and it wasn’t me who was sick. We stopped at a dozen pharmacies on the way back to the flat, trying to find the medicine Sara usually got. I felt exhausted all over. The mood that had been light and optimistic in the morning as we sat by the river with a couple of chocolate croissants had dropped underground, and now I could feel it heavy in my bones. And Sara could feel that I felt it. We had grown hyper aware of each other, so caught up in each other’s moods there was no way to keep separate who was feeling what. I wondered whether that made me a hypocrite. Me, who could wax about freedom and individuality all day long, but who was also practically married to Sara. Who had sworn that they could not be fully happy, knowing that Sara existed unhappily somewhere else. I wanted to see her succeed, I wanted to know her as happy as possible, unafraid, going after her dreams. Then I could be at peace. That probably made me a hypocrite. But I could also imagine a future in which we lived apart, in which we were both happy, in which we would look back on this journey with a warm and grateful feeling in our gut and thank the universe for bringing us together for this stretch of the way to help each other work through all the shit the first twenty years of our lives had accumulated. A future in which we’d meet sometimes to catch up, where we still loved what the other had to say. Maybe this was why it was easier to have friendships than relationships. Maybe the thing was that friendships weren’t expected to be so dense all of the time. Maybe expectations where the whole problem, and if we imagined relationships more like sexual friendships, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
When we got back to the flat, Sara crawled into her sleeping bag. I made her some soup and tea.
“What if it’s Tonsillitis?” she asked. “If I get Tonsillitis I won’t be able to go on. I would have to go back to my parents.”
“It’s not Tonsillits.”
We agreed she would not get Tonsillitis. “Should I read to you a little?” I asked.
“That’d be nice.”
I picked up Sara’s copy of Wild and began reading. Cheryl Strayed was on the PCT, lugging around her heavy monster pack and telling us about how she chose her last name, that, when she got divorced from Paul, she was allowed to pick an entirely new name for herself. Strayed. It was painful. It was perfect.
I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days – those very days in which I was naming myself – I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I HAD strayed and that I WAS a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.
Yes, I thought. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Every experience was an experience. There was no failing but failing forward.
She went on to describe the divorce, her divorce from the man she still loved. Paul.
We wanted to believe that we were still gentle, good people in the world. That everything we’d said to each other six years before had been true. What was it we said? We asked each other a few weeks before, half drunk in my apartment, where we’d decided once and for all that we were going through with this.
My throat closed up. I couldn’t read on. I cried.
“I can’t do this, I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t read this.”
Sara stroked my hair. “It’s OK. You don’t have to. Thank you.”
“Why this scene of all scenes?” I asked, wiping tears off my face. What a bitch fate was.
March 30, Day 12
On Thursday we took the Flixbus to Lyon. Sara was too sick to hitchhike, and we didn’t want to risk her getting even sicker. Lyon was a beast of a city. The further we travelled, the larger these cities seemed to become. The problem was that French cities are all concrete, our host Sarah from Belfort had explained. German cities had a lot more green and parks in them. The bus held at the train station, where our next host, Mel, picked us up. She was an engineer our age, hosting and even using Couchsurfing for the first time. She took us on the subway where people pressed into us from all sides, like we were in Hamburg all over again. Mel navigated public transport with ease, looking as at home on the subway as a worm in wet soft mud. Her apartment wasn’t shared. She lived there all on her own. She would not live with people she didn’t know before, she told us over a cup of tea, and yet she had accepted two strangers into her home. She would love to travel, but had never dared. She had no friends who wanted to travel, and would start working in six weeks. I thought about how you could learn a lot about people from looking at their apartments, how this place was Mel and Mel was this place, from the loneliness to the cutesy pink toilet paper and the manga collections.
“She’s all caught up in this nice life,” Sara told me when we had a moment to ourselves. “Where you have a nice flat, a nice job, nice clothes, and everything is nice but you’re not really happy.” Mel was nice, too. But we weren’t comfortable there. We were two aliens, with our short hair and functional wear. Being with her made us act versions of ourselves we had long discarded. Every time we were our loud, brash selves, we could see her positively cower. She had learned to make herself small and pleasant, to be accommodating and without edges. Our edges scared her. And suddenly I found myself saying things I didn’t really mean, like that going out to the city in my hiking clothes made me feel weird, or that I hated spiders, when I couldn’t give two shits about my clothes and had had a spider crawl all over my arm just two days ago. I thought that if I could make myself a smaller, more pleasant version of myself, I might not scare Mel so much. But this version of me was fake and I hated it, which made me want to get as far away from her as possible.
March 31, Day 13
I felt it while we cooked together, I felt it while she gave me a city tour the next day, I felt it in all the superficial topics I could come up with, carefully steering around anything political or opinionated. She gave nothing away. It wasn’t her fault, and I felt sorry, wished there was anything I could say to inspire rather than scare her. But we were just too much, too crazy, too out there for a girl who had only ever lived in cities and couldn’t tell male and female ducks apart.
“I think what we have to realise,” Sara said, “is that growing up female is inherently traumatizing.” We could write whole papers about wilderness and femininity now. We had shed so many of the fake layers or were in the process of shedding those layers of concepts and stepping out of the dead skin as our true selves, human, with opinions and body hair. Mel wasn’t ready, not for this. I hoped she would be. I was crossing my fingers for her.
While Sara stayed in and Mel went out for drinks with her improv theatre group, I checked out the boulder hall around the corner. Sara had urged me to go, feeling me bristle with restlessness. I needed the distraction and I needed the workout. The hall was smaller than at home. Madly expensive. But by the time I got there I was already too excited to get my hands on a few good grips to turn away again, and the dude behind the counter spoke English and told me there were student discounts. I handed him my way outdated ID from Uni Hamburg and got the discount.
“Don’t I need to sign anything?” I asked.
“Oh yeah. I forgot.” He had long hair a little like Swords and was actually quite pretty. I couldn’t help but steal a glance sometimes in between routes, feeling the familiar tug in my gut and a taste of home on my tongue. If I lay on the ground and looked at the pipes on the ceiling, I could almost be in Freiburg. The music was the same. The sounds were the same. I had chalk on my hands and an ache in my arms and the dude looked a little like Swords. Past 11, I packed up and got ready to leave. He was still there. I walked up to him.
“Can I just say, you’re really pretty.”
He made a surprised face. Maybe nobody had ever told him that. Maybe not like this. But this was France, and a different city, and I would probably never come here again. I like to let people know when I like their face.
“Uh. Thank you,” he said.
“Have a good day,” I said, although the day was almost over. I didn’t expect him to follow me outside.
“Where are you from?” he asked. We stood there for a while as I explained my circumstances to him, then he got his bike and we walked down the street alongside each other.
“There is some kind of party happening, my friend just told me,” he said. “Do you want to come?”
Oh. What was happening? I chewed on my lips.
“I would love to come,” I said. If this was any other situation, it would have been perfect. I was in a new city, I wanted to meet people, he was pretty. But Sara was sick and tired and waiting up for me to let me into the flat, and I had a tendency to give my heart away to strangers with little regard for the consequences.
“But tonight I can’t,” I added. “If you want to hang out, I’ll still be here tomorrow.”
“Oh. I have to work,” he said. “But if you come to the hall we can climb.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, knowing that this was the end. I couldn’t boulder twice in a row, and it was way too expensive. We said goodbye, going off in opposite directions. I didn’t feel sad. My limbs were pleasantly exhausted, my mind pleasantly calm. I put in earbuds and listened to the instrumental Swords had sent me. There were trees blooming in the street. The air was mellow and the lit windows of pubs glittered in the night. I was at peace.